Tag Archives: Feminism in Indian literature

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, II

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Feminist theories have questioned the implication of Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation, “One is not born a woman. But becomes one”, by focusing on

from: Google images

from: Google images

the lived body. That is, it is not sufficient, in feminist politics, to attend only to the social control and view woman as a socially constructed body. This view taken to its limit, would lessen the agential power of the female person. Thus, it is argued that attention should also be given to the lived body in its various daily practices and experiences in their location as an important dimension of a person’s identity. The argument is that the socially constructed body as well as the lived body are to be the scope of feminist analytic. We can bring this insight to understand the image complex in the novel under consideration. The image complex of Ammu and Velutha in The God of Small Things releases two kinds of possibilities. One is obtained when we focus on the staging of subversion; this has something to do with the way lived body is instrumentalised by Ammu and Velutha to assert (as a conscious choice) themselves as agential bodies. The second is obtained in the clash with the regimes of power that it sets up and the re-imposition of social control on their bodies – via Ammu’s being imprisoned and Velutha’s body being broken. An attention to these two issues emanating from the image complex of the affair between Ammu and Velutha also raises the issue of social control (i.e. socially constructed body) and lived practice (i.e. lived, agential body). What it suggests is that the two are in excess of and in exodus from each other. Ammu’s choice to seek and find Velutha’s love indicates that she is exercising her agential power to not subscribe to the prescriptive social control. It suggests that socially constructed body and lived body do not ‘fit’ each other: no body-person displays all of the social production of the body – it is always less. Thus socially constructed body is in excess of the lived body. No lived body is all about socially constructed body; a body person exceeds in desire and in deeds the socially scripted body. Thus, lived body is in excess of socially constructed body, despite internalisation. This excess thus marks the sites of both overdetermination and transgression.

The polemical voice of the narrator has the following comments to make about the extreme violence that the police unleash on an unarmed and sleeping, Velutha:

these were… history’s henchmen sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilisation’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.

‘Fear’ as a response to powerlessness is significant. This focuses on how, though socially constructed body is a site of control, of determinations, the mechanisms of control are also signs of anxiety about the uncontrolled, lived body. Thus, social control is attempting to escape the challenges thrown by the lived body; avoid the destabilising effects of the free body-person. This exodus from the lived body is the way of the social control to restructure the lived body so that its being does not destabilise, unsettle the matrices of social control. Lived body too is in exodus from socially constructed body, to avoid being ‘fit’, to defend its freedom, to slip out of straightjacket; it is always in a mode of escape.

The two processes, viz. the excess and the exodus, produce a site external to the other. Lived body’s excess and exodus are aimed to create an outside site where social control is not operational. This is a site of subversion, transgression, resistance and alternatives. This ceaseless production of an exterior to social control that lived body tries to generate is an attempt at circumventing the present controls; it is an excess in relation only to controls present in the present. Thus, Ammu finds in Velutha the means of escaping the claustrophobic caste and gender controls inscribed on her which are made effective through an economy that renders her dependent on her male sibling. Velutha finds in Ammu the means of escaping his subjection in an economy of bonded labour and caste oppression. Their sexual relationship becomes the exterior space wherein their bodies are attempting to loose the shackles of social control.

On the other hand, the excess of socially constructed body is outside lived body as these controls are beyond application: the overdeterminations are yet to be operational. They are tomorrow’s control. This excess space hence forever expects the excess of the lived body, anticipates transgression. In the novel, Velutha’s father’s sense of loyalty to Ayemenem house that leads him to confess his knowledge of the affair between Velutha and Ammu to Mammachi, his landlady, is as instance of the excess of the social control.  Similarly, the sense of outrage based on defilement of caste purity with which Mammachi and Baby Kochamma react to this is another instance. It is to be noted that the control on the body of Ammu is cross-stitched with her caste. Further, the caste/class prejudiced police institution too acts as the excess space of the social control that becomes operational at the instance of transgression.

If we now reflect on the staging of the subversion through their bodies by Ammu and Velutha, and the resultant violence on them, it is possible to look differently at the two processes discussed above. The two processes of excess and exodus are producing another phenomenon: it is a mechanism of perpetuation. Because, while the excess of the lived body is aiming to escape the present control, the excess of the social control is already in anticipatory mode. Thus, in the postponement of the present control, there are already signs of the excess of social control catching up: postponement becomes a perpetuation.

In The God of Small Things the processes of subjugation and mechanisms of oppression are portrayed through a variety of narrative techniques: characterisation, ironic juxtapositions, scenes of violence, small acts of defiance by characters, etc. Apart from these aesthetic codes, the historical and polemical codes in the novel too function as a direct and indirect commentary on the will to power of the ‘Big Gods’.

Shashi Deshpande and Indian Feminism

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Shashi Deshpande is one of the novelists whom you can read with seriousness. She is never after gimmicks. There is an ernest voice, very serious about the story being told and its manner. She is one of the writers with little posturing.

from: google images

from: google images

Her novels usually have women as the protagonists. This has led readers to call her a feminst writer. She has often complained against this title. Earlier I used to find this discomfort puzzling. In an earlier entry on Kamaladas here, I have in fact been vocal about writers’ hesitation to the ‘feminst’ title. But then I heard her at a seminar in Dharwad where in interactions she explained her reluctance.

Shashi Deshpande is of the view that in calling her novels feminst, one straitjackets the works; imprisons them with the label. She feels that while she is feminist, her novels are novels. She hasnt written the novels as a debating voice, to develop a thesis in a debate. She feels her novels are open examinations of the experiences of people in specific setting. In other words, I understodd her to be saying that ‘do not read these novels only within the framework of feminist concerns, they are novels like any other with a gamut of issues and experiences.

from google images

from google images

Absolutely fair. It is true that labeling a work is not much of a tribute. Categorizations invariably raise questions of in and out. Every category becomes an exercise in the imposition of certain limits. Then these categories themselves become a type of concession. For example, first label Shashi D as a feminist, then read her within the limits of feminist concerns, then make concessions by saying things like: ‘she is ok among the feminist writers’ as if outside the confines of the label she would not deserve place. This becomes another way of exclusion.

The issue is equally relevant in the case of Dalit literature too. More discussion here. Assertion of identity cannot be punished with a ghetto label. The issue is rather complex, not available to this kind of  simple discussion. For example, one may say that the category is an assertion of identity, not a limiting label. That through the label one is signifying ones politics. That the work itself is political in its claim of that label. For example, a dalit writer may say that in claiming the label ‘dalit’ for the work, s/he is asserting the value of the work.

Sucharita, a friend of mine, herself a writer, has an interesting take on Shashi D here. I found the reaction of her mother v. interesting. Let me quote.

I remember presenting Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence to my mother. She was still teaching English Literature in college at that time and managing life in an extended family. She said she lapped up the narrative not for its literary subtleties or niceties but for the empathy it created for the woman in the narrative.

Sucharita goes onto further observe:

I remember asking the question of other ‘female’ elders who read the book after that. It was identification primarily that made the novel appealing to them. Jaya, Indu, Sumi, the list goes on …. strong, intelligent, educated, urban women who speak out, question, introspect, present in a literary microcosm the condition of women in India at large. Her prose is clear, simple, stark, setting forth a narrative of familial issues and crises arising from them. The long silence that has enveloped women across cultures forms the crux of her plots, the silence eloquent with unheard and unuttered doubts and worries, self questioning and suppressed grievances.

It appears to me that Shashi D’s appeal lies in the feminist themes. Her plots mold into emphatic pictures of feminist points of view. Many of us are blinded by this optics to such an extent that we fail to see any other merit in her. For example, I was thinking of her novel That Long Silence. I think in this novel the use of the modernist idiom is very interesting. THe manner in which Shashi D in this novel weaves together two kinds of intertextuality is also very interesting.

from: google images

from: google images